Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You recently wrote the book, Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades. What stimulated your interest in Fanon’s work?
Dr. Peter Hudis: There is indeed a renaissance of interest in Fanon’s work in the last several years (my book is only one of many that have appeared). I think there are two reasons for this. The first is the objective changes in global capitalism, which is generating racial discrimination and racism on a huge scale. Racism, and especially anti-black racism, is not new to capitalism; as the history of the U.S. shows, class relations have been shaped by racial factors since the birth of the colonial project. This is why any “purely class” analysis always fails when applied to U.S. society. What has become increasingly obvious, however, is that the racial structuring of class and social relations is neither a matter of ancient history nor restricted to the Americas. As capitalism becomes increasingly globalized it increasingly relies on racial determinations to spur capital accumulation, divide the working class, and divert attention from the crises plaguing existing society. Europe is a clear case, which is experiencing a massive growth of racist sentiment, but the problem is by no means limited to Europe. The second reason for the renewed interest in Fanon is the effort, especially by people of color, to resist this resurgent racism. The scourge of police abuse, prison warehousing of the poor and unemployed, and discrimination against immigrants is causing a new generation to seek out theoretical sources that can assist the effort to combat these conditions. As the foremost critic of race and racism of the post-World War II era, it makes sense that Fanon would once again serve as a pole of attraction, especially for young people.
Can we say that Frantz Fanon’s thought is essential to understand the world today, especially the importance of class, race and gender?
Yes, I do think so. If you go back 40 or 50 years ago, many people were interested in Fanon as apostle of Third World revolution, seeing in him a vital source for understanding the horrors of colonialism and the need for colonized peoples to take up arms against it. Then about 20 to 30 years ago a different kind of interest in Fanon emerged (mainly within academia), that sought to appropriate some of his ideas while divesting them from their revolutionary content. Many of the proponents of postcolonial theory long before abandoned any notion of revolution or transcending capitalism and saw his relevance mainly in terms of its insight for matters pertaining to cultural studies. Some of their work contains insights, but the extent to which Fanon would have been interested in it is a matter of debate. In any case, today’s interest in Fanon is very different. He has returned to the thicket of political debate concerning live issues of social transformation—especially the relation of race and class.
Fanon is essential, in my view, for understanding this problem. He did not view racism as an inherent part of the human condition or as a cultural phenomenon that is an inherent part of “the West.” He viewed anti-black racism as a project of capitalism, which of course originally arose in the West. He was not a race essentialist, but proceeded from an understanding of the economic imperatives of capitalism that drove (and continue to drive) racial injustice. On this score he was clearly indebted to Marx, and my book tries to re-establish the Marxian background to the Fanonian project. My aim in doing so is not to engage in a version of epistemic imperialism by tying Fanon to a “white European” figure. Rather, it is for the sake of delineating how his thought can help us navigate our way through the complex relation between race and class.
But we have still not touched on what makes Fanon essential, since there are many others who have connected racism to the economic imperatives of capitalism. What makes Fanon stand out is that he does not stop at racism’s economic roots, but explores how racism takes on a life of its own in the inner life of the individual. His exploration of how racism causes us to “see” others in such as way as to not truly see them as human beings discloses the unconscious biases and chooses that often drive human behavior. And his understanding of the impact of being denied recognition because of one’s race or ethnicity—as seen in his discussion of internalized oppression and the inferiority complex that often accompanies racist discrimination—captures the dynamic of interpersonal relations as few others have. Fanon’s originality lies in trying together the economic and psychological sides of racist oppression, while not privileging the former over the latter. He thereby goes beyond Marx and many others in the radical tradition, who did not devote themselves to exploring this inner life of racial alienation.
That said, Fanon was not trying to develop a theory of alienation. His concern was with developing a theory of disalienation (on this issue Marx and Fanon were on the same page). That is, he was most of all concerned with how the victim of racism transcends the psychic structures that inhibit the expression of their human potential. This effort to achieve a new humanism from the struggle against a dehumanized world is the central theme of all of his works—whether Black Skin, White Masks, which explores the issue on a more individual level, or The Wretched of the Earth, which does so from on a more social level. This is of tremendous relevance for today, since the tendency of freedom struggles to stop short of the affirmation of a new humanism has proven to one of the central problems inhibiting the development of a viable anti-capitalist alternative.
Fanon offers us less guidance when it comes to issues of gender, although some important work has been done by feminist theoreticians in applying his critique of internalized oppression and inferiority complexes to the realities experienced by women.
The anti-colonialist commitment of Frantz Fanon, particularly in Algeria, was very important in his life and work. Algeria, which is a Mecca for revolutionaries, is currently undergoing a neo-colonialist assault on the part its the former colonial power, France. Do not you think that safeguarding the independence of Algeria and consolidating it is the best way to pay homage to the ideas, the fight and the sacrifice of Fanon and his Algerian comrades?
To be sure, safeguarding Algeria from the ravages of neo-colonialism is of vital importance and something Fanon himself cared about very deeply; one can even say it serves as the subtext of his final book, The Wretched of the Earth. I think he would be just as concerned about the ravages produced by fundamentalism and the efforts of imperialist powers to claim to oppose while demonizing Islam as a whole. It should not be forgotten that his wife, Josie Fanon, who remained in Algiers after his death, committed suicide in response to the viciousness of the civil war between the Algerian government and FIS [Islamic Salvation Front —Eds.] in 1989.
That said, the best way to pay homage to Fanon’s ideas is to take seriously, and work out for today, his effort to forge a path forward for the African continent that does not stop at the bourgeois-nationalist phase of development. Independence is, for Fanon, a vital but first step in the struggle for liberation; it is a necessary but insufficient condition for realizing the goals of the anti-colonialist masses. Much of The Wretched of the Earth is a meditation on how the African revolutions can and should transcend the confines of the national bourgeoisie that assumed power following the departure of the colonialists. He did not want independence to be won at the cost of having the masses suffer decades of oppression and impoverishment at the hands of a new elite; he instead wanted national independence to serve as the catalyst for creating a genuine, grassroots socialism—something that he confessed did not exist anywhere in the world at the time. This dimension of his work, I believe, has become more relevant today than ever, since the failure to envision and develop such an alternative has created a political and social void that is being filled by reactionary religious fundamentalism.
The latter will not be defeated by imperialist intervention by the U.S. and the West—though it should be noted that today we face the danger of multiple imperialisms and sub-imperialisms. It can only be defeated by masses of people who possess a completely different vision of liberation.
In your book, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, you suggest that no effective anti-capitalist and revolutionary forces exist today. If this is the case, what tools are available for revolutionaries to fight the capitalist system?
I would not say that there are no effective anti-capitalist forces on the scene today; they exist, but they face formidable barriers. I will not dwell on the external factors here—repression, censorship, and efforts to marginalize social movements by the powers that be. These are very important, but what I wish to address is the internal barriers.
I will try to illustrate the issue this way: Over and over we hear criticisms of the horrors of “Neo-Liberalism”—and for good reason. Its imposition of austerity, privatization, and inequality is horrible. But why is “Neo-Liberalism” so often attacked instead of naming the culprit as capitalism? After all, capitalism existed long before Neo-Liberalism entered the scene in the 1970s, and it will exist after it is gone. And as the election of Trump as well as developments in Europe (especially in Hungry and Poland) shows, a significant section of the global bourgeoisie is fully willing to jettison Neo-Liberalism in favor of xenophobic national-capitalist development models. So why the infatuation with talking about Neo-Liberalism, when it may already be passing from the scene?
The answer is simple: “all determination is negation,” as Spinoza put it. The act of critique involves a determinant negation, that is, a negative implies a positive. If you attack Neo-Liberalism, the immediate question is, “what is the alternative to it?” An easy answer is forthcoming—Keynesianism! It is, after all, the opposite of Neo-Liberalism. And indeed, when you press most critics of “Neo-Liberalism” as to what they propose to replace it, they come up with a raft of proposals for re-inventing the Keynesian welfare state. Now I have no problem with some of the specific proposals; I too would like to see single-payer health care system in the U.S. But aside from the fact Keynesian is a form of capitalism, and therefore poses no fundamental challenge to it, calls to return to the liberal welfare state of old are completely quixotic. Keynesianism rose in response to a specific set of conditions in the 1930s and 1940s that no longer prevail. It is no longer affordable given global capital’s massive debt levels and (most important) the persistent decline in profit rates that have defined it since the 1970s. In sum, the era of progressive liberalism is dead and it isn’t coming back. A striking sign of this is that even when leftwing governments come to power professing opposition to capitalism, like Syriza in Greece, they abandon their radical stance once it is time to implement policy.
So why don’t more people directly target capitalism rather than an epiphenomenal expression of it? The answer to this one is simple as well: if you attack capitalism, you must speak of its opposite, socialism. But that is very hard to do. One reason is that many will think you mean Social Democracy or Stalinism, so you must right away come up with a better definition (after all, only a dinosaur or a madman is willing to repeat those total failures). But how do you come up with a better definition of socialism without mouthing platitudes and generalities? The problem is, many are so used to thinking of socialism in juridical terms, such as the abolition of private property and market anarchy or a “fair equal distribution of value” (as if you can’t have capitalism in their absence), that what they can come up with as the answer is…Keynesianism! Listen to how the most prominent figures on the Left today discuss “socialism,” and you discover right away that they are recycling Keynesian recipes. One would never know listening to them that there is a logic of capital that needs to be targeted, challenged, and negated.
Which means that the only way discuss the heart of the matter—the logic of capital, which is wreaking such destruction on our planet—is to be prepared to discuss the alternative to the logic of capital. And there aren’t a lot of people doing that.
This is where my book comes in. Everywhere I go in the world (and I travel rather extensively) I hear the same concern voiced by movement activists—“we clearly need an alternative to capitalism, but it has become so hard to define or discuss socialism.” There is an implicit understanding that equating “socialism” with nationalized property under the control of a centralized state led by a “revolutionary party” makes little sense in light of the realities of the last 100 years. But a richer, more adequate understanding of socialism that addresses the realities of contemporary capitalism today still awaits us. We are all students in this regard, searching in the dark for where to begin.
I decided to begin with Marx. Since no one developed a more profound critique of capital than he, surely there must be something in his work that points to the alternative to capital. And the more I searched the more I found. It isn’t a blueprint; it isn’t even a detailed outline. But there is a concept of an alternative to capitalism in his work that provides a foundation for the needed effort to reinvigorate anti-capitalist movements.
Actually, I didn’t really begin my work on this from scratch. I was led there by the ideas of Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S. (I was her secretary for the last year of her life and edited two of her books after her death in 1987). Throughout her development of Marxist-Humanism, she emphasized the need to work out “what happens after the revolution before it occurs.” It was her response to the innumerable unfinished and aborted revolutions of the 20th century. As she wrote just a few weeks before her death, “The point is that of the years 1924-29, 1929 to today, World War II, and all those national revolutions, the rise of a Third World and the endless continuing struggle, and nowhere in sight, not even in telescopic sight, is there an answer to the question, what happens after the conquest of power?” The alternative may still not be in “telescopic sight,” but that doesn’t make task of working it out less vital.
Doing so, I believe, would constitute a viable tool for helping reinvigorate today’s nascent anti-capitalist movements. The problem is not in recognizing the problems of capitalism; a recent poll in the U.S. showed that 50% of people under 30 had a positive view of socialism, and only 30% had a positive view of capitalism. Awareness of the non-viability of capitalism grows with each passing day. But there is a long way to go from there to an effective anti-capitalist movement. The latter needs a viable re-conceptualization of socialism, which is very much a work in progress.
What happened to the fighting spirit of the working class?
The extent to which the working class possesses (or fails to possess) a “fighting spirit” depends on many factors—foremost among them being the objective conditions that shape their existence. History indicates that there are at least two objective conditions that drive working class militancy. One is the eviction of laborers from the land and their transformation into urban or industrial wage laborers. This is a violent, repressive and dehumanizing process, and is often met with a fighting spirit by the laborers—not least because they possess memory of what life was like before they were forced into the factory and therefore do not view capitalist oppression as “natural.” Periods defined by a rapid transition from rural to urban social space have tended to produce the most radical workers’ movements (the Chartist Movement in Britain in the 1830s, the IWW in the early 20th century in the U.S., the Italian workers’ movements of the early 1920s, Bolivian miners’ struggles of the 1940s and 1950s, etc.). We see this unfolding before us today as well, in the massive displacement of peasants from the land and their transformation into wage laborers in China, which has led to massive social unrest (about 80,000 unauthorized strikes and protests occur in China every year).
The other objective condition is the logic of capital, which brings together formerly dispersed laborers into centralized units, thereby providing a basis for cooperation among workers who oppose the alienated labor process. The concentration and centralization of capital, at certain historical periods, corresponds with an intensified socialization of labor—making trade union organization, working class culture, and organized struggles that combine economic and political demands possible. There are many historical examples of this—from the growth of the German workers’ movement at the end of the 19th century, the formation of the CIO in the U.S. in the 1930s, and the struggles that gave birth to Solidarnosc in Poland as well as the militant workers’ struggles in South Africa that proved instrumental in the destruction of apartheid in the 1990s.
The “fighting spirit of the working class” always has to be viewed in terms of the background horizon that forms proletarian experience; it does not come out of nowhere, and it surely is not produced by the schemes, plans, or blueprints of radical theoreticians.
Clearly, today the above two objective conditions do not have the weight as they had in the past. First, while much of the developing world is experiencing—or is about to experience, in the case of much of Africa—a massive shift of rural to urban, this process has long ago been completed in the West. We cannot therefore expect that workers’ militancy will take the same form or degree that it exhibited in earlier historical moments when this was not yet the case. Second, the logic of capital faces “the cunning of history”: since the drive for self-expansion is integral to the nature of capital, and since it can expand only by augmenting the productivity of labor, it must reduce the relative proportion of living labor to capital at the point of production. This need not show up at first as an absolute decline in the number of productive workers, so long as new productive enterprises enter the field that employ laborers formerly tied to the land. But once the latter process is completed, and the logic of capital proceeds ever further apace, there is an absolute (and not just relative) decline in the size of the industrial proletariat.
This clearly leads to massive unemployment and underemployment. It is therefore no accident that today “the fighting spirit of the working class” is most manifest among these sectors of the population. They often have little to lose but their chains! And since (as the old adage goes) the last hired and first fired tend to be national minorities, their opposition to the existing state of affairs is often articulated not solely in terms of class relations but on the basis of racial and gender identities. It therefore becomes, in certain contexts, impossible to separate these into different compartments.
At the same time, the same logic of capital that displaces productive labor creates an ever-larger number of wage earners. You do not have to be an industrial worker to earn a wage or be a worker; even in the early 20th century the industrial working class in the West never constituted more than 35% of any nation’s labor force (and that’s without counting the unpaid domestic labor of women, which of course should be counted). There are more wage laborers on the planet today than at any time in history—billions of them. And many of them work in the service sector (which now makes up 85% of the U.S. work force). Do service workers form part of the working class? Yes. Should we expect them to express and organize themselves along the same lines as the industrial proletariat? No. They experience many ills of capitalism—overwork, underpay, discrimination, precariousness, etc.—but in a different objective context than what faced the factory worker.
Perhaps they have not yet raised their voice—but many of them will, especially when the logic of capital impacts them directly by seeking to automate even their jobs out of existence. But here too capital is not omnipotent: it is much easier to automate productive labor based on performing quantifiable tasks than service work that often requires nurturing, caring, and critical thinking. The logic of capital always operates in a terrain rife with historical contingencies.
In any case, what I conclude from the above in that it is wrong-headed, if not self-destructive, to write off the working class tout court because of the objective changes in capitalism, and it is no less backward looking and self-destructive to just carry on as if nothing has changed. Resistance by workers goes on everyday, and there is no reason not to expect that to continue. But there is also no reason to expect such resistance to take the form of the traditional labor movement of old. In an era of permanent underemployment and unemployment, in which life experiences outside the workplace carry as much weight (if not more so) than those within it, and in a world in which issues of class, race and gender become increasingly difficult to separate and disaggregate, why blame the modern worker for not adopting the forms and slogans of the industrial proletariat of a century ago? These workers may well choose to define themselves in relation to movements and struggles with a very different self-definition—whether it is broad-based movements for democracy, struggles against racism and sexism, battles for environmental justice, etc.
Likewise, it would be strange to expect today’s productive workers to exhibit the same level of “fighting spirit” as in times past when they now work in enterprises defined by the greater socialization, not of labor, but of capital! When dozens work in plants where thousands once did, and when jobs have become so scare that every worker knows they can readily be replaced at a moment’s notice, the parameters of their struggle obviously change. This does not necessarily mean workers have become “passive” or “backward. “ It means they are doing what workers have always done—respond to the conditions facing them in terms of their range of possibilities.
I am not denying that there are many other factors that bear on the fighting spirit of workers; ideology, media propaganda, consumerism, etc. These are important factors but I believe their role has been overstated. Rarely is it explained why one group of workers buy into the established ideology whereas another group of workers, subjected to the same influences, do not. I believe answering such questions require us to go deeper than issues of ideology and false consciousness, which often become a trope through which disillusioned intellectuals can project disappointment with “the god that failed.”
There is, however, a critical issue that does pertain to consciousness and ideology—the projection of a viable goal toward which workers’ struggles (or indeed any progressive struggle) are striving. Whatever its limitations, the socialist/communist movements of old knew what they were fighting for. Masses of people did not simply spontaneously revolt and then begin to ask, years later, what is to replace existing society. A general—even if often vague and misplaced—idea was presented to the masses long before. That idea centered on replacing an anarchic, market-driven competitive society with a planned, organized one, under the control of the working class. The persistence with which revolutionaries advocated the need for socialism and communism belied their claim that ideas were mere epiphenomenal reflections of material conditions.
The problem we now face is that the idea of socialism and communism that was long advocated proved to be inadequate, and no alternative vision that speaks to the aspirations of masses of people has been developed to take its place. Replacing market anarchy by planned production, even when under the aegis of a so-called workers’ party, paved the way not for socialism but state-capitalism. The capitalist law of value was not abolished in a single one of the “socialist” or “communist” states, and by the 1980s that truth wormed its way to the surface as virtually every one of them took off the mask and openly adopted the capitalist free market. But what alternative vision that posits an alternative to capitalism and state-capitalism that called itself communism has been developed since then? And if one is missing, is that of no consequence?
Take the former USSR and China today. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 was followed by a 40% decline in industrial production and an economic crisis so severe that it rapidly produced an absolute decline in life expectancy. Surely such conditions should generate a proletarian revolution—especially given Russia’s rich history of having them. But it didn’t happen. Why not? It’s a complex issue, but one reason is that the USSR reduced political life to an empty shell by eviscerating civil society. All avenues for expression and association, even down to the most mundane level, were controlled by the state. Which meant that once the collapse and crisis came, and workers began to get tossed onto the unemployment line, there were no social structures, organizations, or support mechanisms to facilitate struggles against the system. Meanwhile, the USSR had called itself socialist, so what were the workers supposed to be fighting for—a return to the old bankrupt system, a more “humane” capitalism, or something else? It just wasn’t clear. Politics, like nature, doesn’t like a void, and into that void stepped you-know-who. Or take China today. I mentioned earlier the 80,000 strikes and protests there a year. Have they yet coalesced into a revolutionary movement? No, and you can at least in part thank the repressive apparatus of the CCP for that. A revolutionary movement may well emerge despite this (its not as if tsarism in 1917 was lax when it came to repression). But the critical issue is that numerous strikes and protests are occurring against a government that still claims to be “Marxist.” In lieu of an alternative vision of Marxism that is available to masses of people, can we saddle them with the task of reproducing the “fighting spirit” of earlier revolutions?
How do you analyze what is happening right now in Venezuela? Do you not think that Venezuela is an epicenter of the fight between the progressive and anti imperialist forces in the face of imperialist domination and that the outcome of this fight is important for all Latin America, or even for the world?
This is a very complex issue that deserves an essay in its own right, so I will be as brief as possible. The “Bolivarian Revolution” stands out for two important accomplishments: 1) It broke from the old, top-down approaches to social transformation that often characterized the Latin American Left (such as Guevara’s guerrilla foco theory and variants of Stalinism) and instead promoted a transition to socialism that was thoroughly democratic. The question that has bedeviled the Left for over a century—how to take power through democratic means when socialists tend to be in the minority—was resolved by Chavez, who put together a progressive regime that in some cases won 65% of the popular vote. 2) It broke from the oligarchic model of development by using Venezuela’s oil revenue to fund a massive growth of social welfare programs, as well as to fund cooperatives, communes, workers’ associations, etc. This led to a significant improvement in living conditions, especially for workers and the poor.
However, the “Bolivarian” model had serious flaws to begin with. It was based on the distribution of petroleum rent, to the neglect of productive investment in manufacturing and agriculture. Chavez appears to have thought he could overcome the “resource curse” while assuming that oil prices would remain over $60 a barrel. But neither turned out to be true, and it didn’t take long for the impact to make itself felt on the economy. When Chavez came to power 67% of the country’s external income came from oil revenue; today it is 95%. The country became more dependent on food imports than ever, and the growing state role in the economy encouraged enormous levels of theft of public resources and corruption. Meanwhile, the communes and cooperatives were never fully integrated into the revolutionary project while centralized state control grew as time went on (sometimes to the detriment of such organizations). Once global oil prices plunged shortly after Chavez’s death, it was only a matter of time before the project would start to unravel—though it has occurred more suddenly and drastically than many expected.
So where to now? The opposition, which has been there all along, is thoroughly reactionary, which didn’t stop it from gaining support as food and medicine disappeared from the shelves. A major sign was its ability to win 65% of the seats in the national parliament in 2015. There is little doubt that as bad as things are in Venezuela, they will get worse if the opposition comes to power; just look what happened in Brazil after the “constitutional” coup evicted Rousseff from power. Maduro has now made an end-run around them by invoking a Constituent Assembly to govern the country. It finally gives a central role to the communes and cooperatives, but it all seems a bit too little and lot too late. It is one thing to make an end-run around bourgeois democracy when the masses are with you and they retain confidence in the movement’s leadership. But that day is long past; though the government claimed 41% participated in the vote for the Constituent Assembly (and even that figure is strikingly low) it is probably closer to 28%. Not to mention, of course, that the delegates were largely selected based on the government’s wishes—hardly a model of democratic governance.
The key question is what can the Constituent Assembly do to reverse the collapsing economy? It can’t control oil prices, and it can’t jump-start industrial production by passing resolutions. It can nationalize the “commanding heights” of the economy (which is mainly the banking sector), but that will probably scare away investors and lead even more of the private sector to hoard goods and close down investments. It’s no small matter that Chavez did not appropriate the wealth or property of the bourgeoisie; on the contrary, most of them profited handsomely from the “Bolivarian Revolution”—which hasn’t stopped many of them, needless to say, from supporting the opposition. Maduro is now trying belatedly to move against them (perhaps to the point of totally nationalizing the economy) at a moment when his base of support is thinner than ever. Maduro may think that the firm hand of state power can resolve the contradictions that face the “Bolivarian Revolution,” but that’s been tried elsewhere with rather dismal results.
That said, the problems facing Venezuela are for the Venezuelans to resolve, and we should first, last and always oppose any effort to intervene—whether militarily or through more “subtle” means—on the part of U.S. imperialism. The “pink tide” in Latin America emerged at a fortuitous moment, in that the U.S. was preoccupied with the Middle East at the start of the century and largely kept its hands off the Latin American progressive regimes (though it did try to overthrow Chavez in 2002 and supported the coup against democratically-elected President Zelaya of Honduras in 2009). That grace period may now be over; with Trump in charge anything is possible. Needless to say, there is nothing to the administration’s claim that it is concerned about the level of violence between supporters and opponents of Maduro; 1,000 were killed by a pro-U.S. regime during the Caracazo of 1989, and I don’t recall the U.S. complaining about it.
A U.S. intervention that destroys what is left of the Bolivarian project would of course be a huge setback, not just for Venezuela but for Latin America as a whole. Let us hope it can be prevented. At the same time, we must not allow our opposition to U.S. policy stop us from having a frank and honest discussion about the shortcomings of the “Bolivarian Revolution” under both Chavez and Maduro. As Rosa Luxemburg suggested in issuing a sharp critique of the Bolsheviks in 1918—at a moment when they were faced with imperialist intervention from over a dozen countries—the best help one can give a revolution is to criticize its limitations.
Do not you think that every struggle against the empire and its allies represented by the comprador bourgeoisie, a true Trojan horse, is a giant step towards the emancipation of all mankind, as each lost struggle weakens and threatens to destroy the world’s resistance to imperialism?
I do not really share this view. To be sure, every freedom struggle makes important contributions and leaves an “intellectual sediment” that can and should be drawn upon for future struggles. But the critical point is it has to be a freedom “struggle against empire”; and by that I mean freedom for workers, women, national minorities, and youth. Not all struggles against “empire” are for the liberation of the masses, nor are all struggles against the “comprador bourgeoisie” (however one chooses to define that). Some struggles against “empire” actually strengthen it. There is no question that the attacks of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorists have strengthened U.S. (as well as Israeli) imperialism. This is why the imperialists are so fixated by their fight against “Islamic terrorism”: it directly benefits the further consolidation of their political and economic hegemony. The more horrible the attacks of the terrorists, the more readily they can present themselves as the only force capable of preserving “life and liberty.”
I do not subscribe to the view that U.S. imperialism created Islamic fundamentalism, though it surely supported elements associated with it when it helped the U.S. clear the field of communists and socialists. Islamic fundamentalism, as Fanon showed long ago, has much deeper roots, in the terrain of the unfinished anti-colonial revolutions. But it works so well for the purposes of empire that they could have created it (fortunately they lack both the foresight and the power to do so). In any case, the main point is the need to acknowledge that there are counter-revolutionary forms of anti-imperialism. The political nature and content of a struggle is not determined by what it is against but what it is for.
Would you agree that for the revolutionary independent control over information, i.e., through the use of alternative media, is vital in the struggle of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist resistance?
Yes, I agree completely. If it were not for alternative media the Arab Spring of 2011 might never have come into existence. There have never been greater opportunities for international dialog and collaboration between activists and thinkers on the left than today because of these and other alternative media platforms. I am especially impressed with work the comrades are doing in IndyMediaAfrica.
Rosa Luxemburg, a great revolutionary, put her mark on history. How can great figures of Marxism like Luxemburg be useful to today—in a dark world where capital is unleashed in ever-more unrestrained form, and where imperialism ravages entire countries and civilizations?
Yes, restudying the contributions of a number of figures in the history of Marxism can aid our struggles today. Of course, we re-examine their contributions with eyes of the problems facing us now, which often casts illumination on aspects of their work that may not have been noticed before. Luxemburg is especially important because of her insistence that imperialism is an integral and inevitable product of capital’s drive for self-expansion. I think there are some major problems with how she theorized this process in her Accumulation of Capital, but the connection between imperialism and the logic of capital is no less important to specify today. I think that her greatest contribution was her understanding that there can be no democracy without socialism and no socialism without democracy. She developed this in the course of criticizing both Social Democratic parties and movements that relied on parliamentary means to transition to socialism as well as revolutionary socialists (such as Lenin and Trotsky) who dismissed democracy as a “cumbersome mechanism” after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. She thereby raised the critical question of “what happens after the revolution” in ways that directly address the central questions facing revolutionaries today.
You are collecting and publishing the complete works of Rosa Luxemburg in 14 volumes. It is a gigantic but necessary work. Can you tell us about this project?
Actually, since a considerable number of her manuscripts have only come to light recently, the Complete Works will comprise 17 volumes, of about 600 pages each. Close to 80 per cent of her writings have never appeared in English, and much of her work (especially originally composed in Polish) has yet even to appear in German. Her Polish writings total more than 3,000 pages. These are now being collected and published by Holger Politt in Warsaw, who is continuing the pioneering work of the great scholar of the Polish labor movement, Felix Tychs. In addition, renowned Luxemburg scholar and biographer Annelies Laschitza has spent the last decade identifying and collecting her previously unpublished German-language writings. In 2014 Dietz Verlag published (in German) a 900-page collection of newly discovered articles and essays covering 1893 to 1905 as a supplementary volume of the Gesammelte Werke. An additional volume of 1,000 pages—covering the years 1906 to 1919—will appear later this year. All of these writings will be made available in the English-language Complete Works.
The collection is divided into three rubrics—the first containing her economic writing (3 volumes), the second her political writings (9 volumes), and the third her complete correspondence (5 volumes). Volume 1 includes The Introduction to Political Economy—a 250-page study of the process by which capitalism develops at the expense of non-capitalist strata—which is widely considered her second most important book (after The Accumulation of Capital). It appears in full in English for the first time. Vol.1 also contains seven manuscripts of lectures and research notes composed while she taught at the German Social-Democratic Party School in Berlin from 1907-1914. The Introduction to Political Economy represents a wonderful overview of the nature, origins, history, and internal contradictions of capitalism. It would be difficult to find a clearer and more detailed analysis of the origins of commodity production, capital accumulation, and a global monetary economy. The manuscripts and lectures from the party school show how intensely she studied not only economic and political phenomena but also kept up with the discoveries of the then-emerging fields of anthropology and ethnology. She especially focused on the communal forms that characterized pre-capitalist societies and the lessons that could be learned from them by the modern socialist movement. The interest on the part of many anti-capitalist activists today in communal social relations that pre-date capitalism is addressed eloquently in Luxemburg’s appreciation for “their extraordinary tenacity and stability…their elasticity and adaptability.” Volume 2 of the Complete Works, published in 2015, contains a new (and much improved) translation of The Accumulation of Capital, the Anti-Critique, and the chapters on Volumes Two and Three of Capital that she wrote for Franz Mehring’s biography of Karl Marx.
We have recently completed the first volumes of her Political Writings. These will be grouped thematically, in four distinct sections. The first section is “On Revolution.” It will present all of Luxemburg’s writings on the 1905 Russian Revolution and 1917 Russian and 1918-19 German Revolution, in three volumes. The second section is “On Organization,” in two volumes. It will present her numerous debates with such figures as Bernstein, Kautsky, and Lenin on organizational matters, as well as disputes on the subject within the Polish Marxist movement. The third section is ”On Nationalism and the National Question,” in three volumes. And the fourth part will be devoted to miscellaneous journalism and her writings on cultural questions, in one volume. I should also add that to help prepare an audience for the English-language Complete Works, Verso Books published a companion to the series in 2011—a translation of Annelies Laschitza and Georg Adler’s Herzlichst Ihrer Rosa, which was published as The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. This 600-page collection represents the largest collection of letters ever published of Luxemburg in English, with a great many of the letters made available to the English-speaking public for the first time.
Can revolutionaries afford despair? Or is the fight an eternal resumption?
I believe we should avoid both despair and notions of eternal resumption—let alone eternal redemption. We should instead, as Hegel put it, “tarry with the negative”—stare reality directly in the face by taking in all its contradictions, limitations, and possibilities, without hesitation. That is hard to do, and many refrain from the task. But achieving it is what makes it possible to delineate what must be done to develop an effective anti-capitalist perspective.
Of course, the odds are against us: the logic of capital is overpowering, and its logic is pushing in a clear direction—towards planetary destruction. This gives new meaning to Marx’s statement that “under penalty of death” capitalism must give way to a higher form of social organization. Yet although capital takes on a life of its own and is, so to speak, on auto-pilot, it is the actions of human beings that sustain it—and therefore it is within our power to end it. Despair is an expression of the tendency to refrain from engaging in the ”the labor, patience, seriousness, and suffering of the negative” needed to surmount the contradictions. Despair is always the easy way out, though it offers no exit.
It is hard to “throw your life on the scales of destiny” (to use a phrase of Luxemburg) unless one believes one’s efforts will be redeemed by a successful outcome. Would Christianity have emerged from the political and ideological rubble of the post-Hellenistic era to become a major world religion (at a time when dozens of religious sects existed which seemed just as likely as Christianity to gain mass support) had it not been for the Christian belief that their labors would one day be rewarded, if not on this earth, then in the kingdom to come? And would the workers’ movements that arose in the 19th century have been able to develop as they did were they not convinced that the contradictions of modern capitalism inevitably posits the material conditions for its supersession? Marxism sustained the workers’ movements not only materially but intellectually and spiritually, by providing assurance than its labors would one day be rewarded—if not to you as an individual, then at least in the future to your class.
Today this assurance has been undermined, for several reasons. One of them is that the concentration and centralization of capital, which was supposed to provide the material conditions for collective ownership of the means of production, resulted not in a new society but in corporate capitalism and state-capitalist Stalinism. Furthermore, the collapse of the latter produced not a forward advance beyond capital but rather an embrace of the old “free market” unregulated capitalism. One can provide all sorts of subjective or contingent explanations for this (and some of them have merit) but, as I suggested above, the objective factors are of utmost importance. We have to study those factors carefully and determine what immanent possibilities exist today for the transcendence of capitalism in light of them. But in doing so we must not make the wish the father to thought. One cannot begin from the assumption that there is an eternal redemption from capital, because doing so leads one to “discover” evidence of it all too quickly! We must “tarry with the negative”—not rush too fast to an answer—even though, of course, an answer as to “what is to done” is needed.
In my view, the last thing needed is to claim that the problem is “a lack of proper revolutionary leadership” and once it is overcome the path ahead will be clear. This is total nonsense—which hasn’t stopped many people (especially coming from a Trotskyist persuasion) from repeating it ad nauseam. I never cease to be amazed at the number of leftists who call themselves “revolutionary materialists” who are trapped in such abstract idealism. For those who adhere to this fetish of leadership, any analysis of reality, the economy or contemporary politics produces the same conclusion. It is monochromatic formalism run amok. All one gets from it is the repetition of the same slogans, again and again. They don’t understand that Marxism does not consist of “applying” a logical formula to reality; it is instead about grasping the logical development of reality.
Though that is where our work begins, I am not suggesting that it ends there. Ideas are important—though not in the way voluntarists (which include Maoists as well) presume. One of the ironies of post-Marx Marxism is that it motivated millions of people to become dedicated fighters on the basis of specific ideas … while simultaneously banishing ideas to the epiphenomenal realm of secondary superstructures. It did not wish to take responsibility for its own praxis. What probably explains this was the effort to respond to the claim, which one always hears from apologists for existing society, that “socialism” is “merely” a mythological idea lacking any real or “scientific” basis. How convenient to then respond by stating, “no, Marxism is the most realist and scientific perspective of all…as proven by the fact that we can show that the new society will inevitably emerge from the old one.” The general idea was right—the leap to freedom is from necessity—but the form of its application led to the reduction of “Marxism” to a pseudo-scientistic ideology, which couldn’t be further from Marx’s approach.
The great value of Marxist-Humanism is that it re-introduced the humanist and philosophical-dialectical dimension of Marxism, while maintaining a firm grasp of Marx’s critique of political economy and his historical materialist perspective. This is the body of thought that I think is urgent to further develop for the 21st century, and I wish to thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts about it.